Storytelling: A Human Technology that Leaves its Mark

Editor’s Note: This post is part of our Big Ideas series, a column highlighting the innovative thinking and thought leadership at IIeX events around the world. Ellen Baron will be speaking at IIeX North America 2019 in Austin, TX. If you liked this article, you’ll LOVE IIeX North America. Click here to learn more. 


When was the last time you listened to a good story?  One that made you want to do something, right away.

Well told stories are convincing because they are emotionally moving. They urge you to do something, even if they never ask you to. Emotionally compelling stories work on the audience by emotional imprinting or tapping into the stored emotional memories we all have. The idea of emotional imprinting was suggested by William James in 1890 and is about how emotional events leave a ‘scar’ or imprint on the ‘emotional tissues of the brain’.       

Listening to stories that are funny, traumatizing, angering, or empowering imprints a feeling on the listener that subconsciously that causes us to draw on relevant emotional memories and experiences from the past. These emotional ‘flashbulbs’ light up causes us to ‘relate’ to the source, the feeling or the need. Stories of frustration connect us to our ‘frustration’ scars, heightening our feelings of frustration, triggering a desire in us to change or fix the situation. Stories of joy, connect us to our ‘joy’ marks, giving us a lingering feeling of pleasure that we may want to lengthen in some way.

From an insight perspective, utilizing this form of emotional connection is much more powerful than presenting a number on a page. The insight is embedded in the emotional unconscious – and the problem or issue will now nag, bother and urge action from the people who need to do something about it.  

How Do Storytelling Events Work?

The idea behind it is to create a storytelling ‘event’ and invite key stakeholders along, most often on the premises or at a company offsite. For the customers, being able to walk the corridors of a company like Uber makes them feel like the company is taking them seriously. For the stakeholders it is more than “seeing is believing” -in some circumstances the only time the stakeholders have been connected to their customers – a compelling enough reason in itself.

These sessions are not a focus group per se, there is no glass mirror, there is no list of questions to get through.  It is about creating an emotional ‘event’, to understand what is behind a big issue or to understand how to improve brand-customer relationships.

How to Make Storytelling Work for You

  1. Start with a compelling consumer question:  It is not good enough to assume any question will be the foundation of storytelling.  It must be a big, open-ended question, designed for storytelling narrative.
  2. Help consumers build the story: This involves gentle probes to get enough background detail and story context to build the story, but to also understand the tension.  
  3. Allow the story to rise to an emotional peak:  People often feel a range of emotions and can either go off track or sometimes hold back.  It is important to circle back to relevant feelings, moods and unmet needs. This is what sticks!
  4. Brand impact & consequences: It is critical that this is drawn out for the benefit of the listeners.  Not everyone listens in the same way nor ‘hears’ the same issues.
  5. Brand Resolution: This is where the consumer can provide some ideas but also where stakeholders can ask questions, test fast theories or assumptions

This is what Uber loves about the Storytelling Forums. They listen, they feel, they connect, they ask questions, test theories, and they ready themselves for fast action.  They run these sessions on their premises or at their away days with key stakeholders and decision makers. There is always a buzz around the lead up to the event and an ongoing buzz afterward.

Conclusion

If the definition of technology is about putting science or knowledge into practical use to solve problems, storytelling research could indeed be considered a ‘human’ or emotional technology.  That’s because it attempts to capitalize on the complex interplay between emotional consumer storytelling and audience imprinting, a mechanic that unconsciously taps into the human condition to solve consumer or brand problems.   

Storytelling sessions may be technology, and a powerful way to make insights stick but they are also are a convincing way for research to get up the C-Suite ladder. It is the perfect tool for challenging sacred cows in the business, myth-busting and helping demonstrate the need for urgent change and it is a great way to add more depth to traditional research methods.

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